As we endure and deal with the various angles of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing caution and responsibility becoming the order of the day, the education sector has had an extremely unique set of challenges, which they are still summiting.
Having to break the age-old routines instilled in generations such as playing together at break-time or working in teams, have all seen a dramatic change. This includes the distribution and management of school work, but teaching mediums evolving and “once norms”, now drastically changed.
Amidst the fears of the pandemic, the Newcastillian – Online News obtained inside information from four of Newcastle’s highly respected schools. Speaking with their respective principals, in order to determine exactly how COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown affected schooling and the functionalities therein.
With industries, locally and nationally facing daunting challenges during the lockdown period, how are schools handling the new regulations? How do they find this ‘new normal’ which is taking root within our society? And what about their charitable initiatives which include feeding schemes and caring for those in need?
Getting us started, is the principal of Drakensberg Primary, Pieter Hanekom, who explains his school took proactive steps from the get-go, ensuring all Grades could return to school. However, he enthuses that classes do not work in the same way as before.
Elucidating on the subject of class functionality, Hanekom explains, classes are now divided into two groups, with one group attending school one week, while the other completes their work at home. These two groups then alternate the following week, ensuring classes are not crowded, thereby adhering to regulations.
As for coming into the school grounds, he says the Drakensberg team are hyperconscious and doing their utmost to ensure good safety is practised at all times. “We are fortunate that we have three entrances for the learners, where they are screened and sanitised.”
Through abiding by the regulations, he affirms, Drakensberg Primary School is adjusting favourably to the new way of life.
Discussing a topic, which many have wondered; did the vitally important feeding schemes run during the lockdown? Hanekom assures that their dedication to those in need did not waver throughout the lockdown. The school supplied both groceries and food parcels to its disadvantaged learners and their families. “We have a list that we work off of and would drop the food parcels and groceries off at the respective family’s homes,” he explains.
Adding to this, Hanekom says the reason the school delivered food parcels to the homes, was due to ensuring the children always had food to eat, irrespective if they could make it the school or not.
Speaking on the changes for learners in a private school setting, during the lockdown, St Dominics Newcastle’s Executive Head, Chad Moses, highlights that his school is adjusting well to the current style of schooling. So much so, that they ensure their learners do not miss out on anything that adds value to the learner’s educational career.
“This year, we held our annual Grade 11 Leadership Camp onsite instead of away. Strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were in place, and the program was adapted according to the regulations. It was a great success. As a school, we are motivated to ensure our learners’ education continues,” states Moses.
Furthermore, Moses says all contact activities have subsequently fallen away; sanitisation, mask-wearing and social distancing have had to become a new mindset for everyone.
“We have staggered arrival times, break times and home times, to give our maintenance and cleaning staff the chance to clean thoroughly every day. We’ve also changed our timetable to a 10-day cyclical timetable so that we can have all our learners back while still maintaining the strict SOPs.”
In lieu of extramural activities and charity, Moses explains St Dominics Newcastle has taken ownership of a can-crushing machine during the lockdown. He says this machine was kindly donated to the school by a recycling company.
“We are currently crushing cans to raise money for the endangered wild dogs in Tembe Elephant Game Reserve on the South Africa-Mozambique border,” he enthuses.
Adding to the question around safety and procedure, Charmaine Myburgh, principal of Ferrum High School, explains that Ferrum High has implemented every possible precautionary step to ensure the school handles the situation and by extension the requirements, accordingly and correctly.
Through implementing the necessary applications and while following a series of strict protocols, Myburgh explains, the various grades were promptly back in action, in July.
These protocols include learners being split into groups and attending classes on alternate days. This ensures classes are smaller than before and social distancing is always maintained.
Laying testament to the precise protocols practised at Ferrum High School, Myburgh states, the school sports an attendance rate of over 90%.
“Our matrics are nearly done with their Annual Teaching Plans (ATPs). Our teachers worked non-stop throughout the lockdown, working online, ensuring our learners are up to date.”
She goes on to say, the school has also repurposed the hall, by making use of it for classes, which aids in the space challenges faced by schools, due to social distancing.
Myburgh assures the school is handling the pandemic so well that they even deep clean the school every second Friday, ensuring nothing breaks their stride. Adding to this, she explains, after every lesson, all classrooms undergo fogging in order to sanitise the classrooms, this happens after every single lesson.
On the subject of visiting the school, Myburgh explains, prior to entering the school premises, children and their parents can go online to fill in their symptoms as to streamline the process of entering the school. Another way in which schools are looking at mediums which assist in making these “new norms”, not so challenging to deal with.
Proudly looking after the community, the Ferrum High School Feeding schemes have also been operating, ensuring that no Newcastillian child goes to bed hungry.
“We continued our feeding scheme throughout the lockdown. The Department of Education assisted us greatly, as did Solidariteit and the Round Table.”
As a sad but very real world for many children, Myburgh stresses that a hungry child cannot focus on their studies and through guaranteeing they are well-fed, the school hoped to continue making a positive impact on their daily lives through these stressful times.
“I encouraged the children to see the school counsellor if they did not have anything to eat, so that those who were not on the list, could receive meals,” she adds.
Lastly, we asked Justus Hartung, the principal of Amajuba School how the school has changed and how are they adjusting to the new world?
He explains while Amajuba has adjusted well to the new way of school, he laughs and says the children are quieter than they once were. Something which he now ironically, finds himself adjusting to.
“However, we are handling the situation well. The scanning and sanitising when children arrive at school requires additional time, but the teachers and children are working together to ensure the process runs seamlessly,” states Hartung.
He adds, like the other schools, classes are now divided in such a way, that children attend their respective lessons on alternate days to minimise the number of children on the school’s premises.
Discussing this changed environment South Africans find themselves in, Hanekom says, the teachers and children are coping with everything, however, he says he is still adjusting to the new culture. One which sees no sports and minimal human interaction.
“I visit the classes every morning to greet the children and some of them are anxious. I had a child recently cry because his teachers could no longer hug him, mark his books daily or give him a star. But, on the positive side, I have seen that children are learning to talk to each other more. They are getting to learn more about each other and their families, as they cannot play in the same way anymore,” he says.
As previously mentioned, classes are quieter, as are the school corridors, as children no longer move from class to class, but rather see teachers changing classrooms.
Adding to this Hanekom says as teachers and children adapt to their new lifestyles, educaters are finding their workloads evolving from a paper base to the connective, digital hemosphere.
This evolution includes welcoming the digital age of learning, which sees teachers engaging with students via platforms such as Google Meet and other forms of social media. “I am very proud of the way the staff and children have adapted,” he beams.
When looking at the same changes, Moses explains the introduction of online learning as the ‘new normal’, as well as a revised timetable, has resulted in a different approach to their days.
Stating that St Dominics Newcastle offers both onsite and online classes. Online learning takes place virtually and remotely via Microsoft Teams, allowing learnersto be part of a live classroom lesson if they cannot be onsite. These lessons are also recorded and shared with the learners to refer back to.
Adding to this Moses says, work is communicated and shared via WhatsApp groups. “We are happy to inform that our school has not missed a single day of teaching since lockdown began, so our learners have not been compromised in any way. We are very proud of the adaptability of our staff who have applied this new learning approach so solidly. Fortunately, Curro ensured that we had all the tools for technology years ago and that implementation combined with continuous training, has paid off for us as a school during this time.”
This term, the school will be doing Formal Assessment Tasks, and for this, they will accommodate their learners in several different venues to ensure their safety says Moses
“I think having to adapt to the ‘new normal’ is a challenge for everyone. However, as a school, we continue to strive to create a positive mindset for the way forward. At first, when the primary school learners came back to school in June, they were a bit subdued, but now they are back to their normal bubbly selves.”
In terms of understanding each learners uniqe needs, Moses says the school respects the fact that each family’s situation is different and therefore treats each case individually.
“Throughout lockdown, we’ve encouraged our parents to keep in touch and to let us know if there are any problemss. Our staff have been amazing, adapting to a hybrid teaching approach. Seeing the staff put so much planning and time into their work, all to ensure that no learner is left behind.”
Myburgh states she has also noted a change in that there are absolutely no issues when it comes to both the staff and learners.
“The children are really committing themselves. While there are some children who are now doing their schoolwork through Ferrum Online, they are coming into school for their assessments.”
Looking at online schoolwork and internet access, Myburgh affirms the school has not only jacked up its Internet system but has also gone as far as to provide data to certain school learners, as well as setting up hotspots at the school.
This is being done due to some families feeling uncertain about the pandemic and not wanting to jeopardise their children or family members health.
With teachers and children being dedicated to the new way of education, Myburgh says Ferrum teachers follow up with those who are now studying at home. By keeping a close eye on these children, teachers can offer support where needed.
As for the children at school, she says, she often reminds them of SMS, which stands for Social Distancing, Masks and Sanitise.
Through online and onsite classes, Myburgh says both staff and learners are handling the situation exceptionally well. So much so, that they do not have to catch up with any work at all.
With the above in mind, it is clear that local schools are winning, which is something we can all be proud of.
However, Myburgh says the Grade 12 learners are a bit disheartened that they have lost out on activities which previous generations took for granted. To make up for this loss, the school will be organising a spirit building initiative for October plus the matric farewell has been booked for December.
Hartung adds to the point by saying, “While the school is quieter than before, you can still hear laughter and while it isn’t as loud as before, it is a good sign.”
When looking at dealing with the pandemic and the way school life has evolved, Hartung states the teachers have performed exceptionally well resulting in learners’ schooling not suffering in the slightest.
“During the entire lockdown, teachers used the Internet to maintain contact with their learners, providing them with their homework and classwork, which the teachers then went over with the children when they came back to school. Everyone is up to date and I am very proud of the way the teachers and learners have been working together.”
With the four schools remaining proactive during the pandemic, what happens if a learner does contract COVID-19? How do the schools deal with the situation?
All four principals assure they comply with the requirements of the Disaster Management Act and the guidelines of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). This means that if a learner or staff member is picked up in the screening process, they are immediately taken to a ‘safe zone’ away from other staff and learners, before being sent home and requested to be quarantined for the regulatory 10 days, as well as being urged to go for testing.
After chatting with these fours heads in local education, one message was extremely clear, these schools are in great hands.
Authors: Quinton Boucher and Calvin Swemmer
Edited: Calvin Swemmer